The Case for the Public Intellectual as Gadfly

Andrew Bacevich, political-science professor at Boston University, has posted a new essay, “Rationalizing Lunacy: The Intellectual as Servant of the State.” It’s a look back at the role of the public intellectual within the U.S. federal government since the time of the New Deal, focusing particularly on their impact on foreign policy, the Vietnam War in specific as well as policy since. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran himself, retired with the rank of colonel before becoming an academic. His son was killed in Iraq. He argues that the “gravitas” of insider intellectuals continues to be respected long after their ideas have been proved (often by the course of events) wrong-headed and sometimes even corrupted by the needs of domestic politics:

As [Ashton] Carter has taken the Pentagon’s reins, he also has taken pains to convey the impression of being a big thinker.  As one Wall Street Journal headline enthused, “Ash Carter Seeks Fresh Eyes on Global Threats.”  That multiple global threats exist and that America’s defense secretary has a mandate to address each of them are, of course, givens.  His predecessor Chuck Hagel (no Yale degree) was a bit of a plodder.  By way of contrast, Carter has made clear his intention to shake things up.

So on his second day in office, for example, he dined with Kenneth Pollack, Michael O’Hanlon, and Robert Kagan, ranking national insecurity intellectuals and old Washington hands one and all.  Besides all being employees of the Brookings Institution, the three share the distinction of having supported the Iraq War back in 2003 and calling for redoubling efforts against ISIS today.  For assurances that the fundamental orientation of U.S. policy is sound — we just need to try harder — who better to consult than Pollack, O’Hanlon, and Kagan (any Kagan)?

Was Carter hoping to gain some fresh insight from his dinner companions?  Or was he letting Washington’s clubby network of fellows, senior fellows, and distinguished fellows know that, on his watch, the prevailing verities of national insecurity would remain sacrosanct?

“It all began innocently enough,” Bacevich argues.  “Back in 1933, with the country in the throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt first imported a handful of eager academics to join the ranks of his New Deal.  An unprecedented economic crisis required some fresh thinking, FDR believed.” What we get today, however, from public intellectuals “inside the beltway” tends to be attempts to dress established policy and preconceptions in academic robes, not new ideas and not ‘big thinking.’ The revolving door involving government, think tanks and, yes, even certain graduate program chairs feeds off of itself and not of real inquiry or fresh thinking. The real public intellectuals, people like Juan Cole, scholars whose careful work and original ideas really should be considered by government, are effectively blocked from impact on policy by the power of that tripart structure, one that allows no outsiders access to that door, one that encourages none but those thinking within established parameters.

The lure of money and power being what it is, we no longer have “outsider” public intellectuals in the United States with the stature to stand up to the government “intellectuals” who are the primary sources for American media. A case in point is the way media have allowed the faux debate on climate change to continue, ignoring the intellectual and scientific consensus, seduced instead by the glamour of high-profile dissension presented within an extremely narrow political frame. The real intellectuals today, unfortunately, aren’t attractive enough to media, their voices thereby reduced to equivalency with kooks and partisans using this “debate” to reach other ends.

Part of the problem, aside from lack of access to the level of funding controlled by the Think Tanks and the cachet that entails in the world today, is that contemporary real intellectuals tend not to be particularly media savvy. They provide no reason for the media to look to them first, when much more attractive personalities put forward by the established powers within media/governmental axis seduce both journalists and audiences–to say nothing of politicians.

We all know, also, the fate of real and high-profile public intellectuals, even those who really do understand media. All we need to do is look back to Tom Paine who, though an autodidact, really did establish himself as an intellectual and has proven to be one of the most influential of his time. Yet his is not considered one of the Founders of the country his words helped establish and died shunned by the United States that owed him so much. Yet it is Paine, and those who have followed his tradition of trying to influence American government and culture from outside of the mainstream of money and power, who have kept this country from devolving into oligarchy.

As we make our way further and further into a divide between the elite and the rest, both monetarily and in terms of political power, we desperately need intellectuals willing to take the risks that Paine took, intellectuals, also, with the media skills that he had. Otherwise, all of our debate will simply be in the ‘echo chamber’ of decisions already made.

Bob Dylan, in his 1968 song “As I Went Out One Morning,” provides a nice allegory for the seduction we’ve experienced at the hands of those who already “walk in chains.” The song ends with these lines:

And as she was letting go her grip
Up Tom Paine did run,
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said to me
“I’m sorry for what she’s done”

2 thoughts on “The Case for the Public Intellectual as Gadfly

  1. Well, if you look at a lot of the people who shaped the nation in the past, including Carter Glass, for example, you will find that they were all self educated through apprenticeship in relevant trades, for example, Glass apprenticed as a printer, he worked as a journalist, and he became a newspaper publisher, do you see the connection between printing and circulating paper at a determined value and cost and the banking industry?

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